Striking the Right Cord: Talking Corduroy
A cloth for Kings? Or workwear for peasants?
When we talk about corduroy we need to do so in careful company, as, although it is a fabric steeped in history and tradition, depending on who you talk to, it seems to be culturally important the world over. So where does it really come from and why is it the marmite all of fabrics?
Growing up in the British Isles, corduroy has always reminded me of home. Somehow soft and tough all at once, this unique fabric recalls memories of the emerald green couch in my grandparent’s front room, threadbare from two generations of children and adults wriggling their derrières on it. It reminds me of school and leafing through the English history books to see a fat King with too many wives, luxuriously draped in autumnal colours of rich cord. But you don’t have to go too far before we find another origin story; legend has it that corduroy comes from the English translation of the French ‘corde du roi’ or ‘cloth of the king’. Another small step into the history books and this theory is quickly debunked, and myth becomes fiction when we learn that this was simply made up by the English to add a little French class and sophistication to their cloth choices. That isn’t to say however that corduroy doesn’t have its own place in French culture; though across the channel it is much less a case of silver spoon than blue collar. In fact, corduroy was part of the uniform of the servants in the King’s and Queen’s palaces in the 18th and 19th centuries, slipping several classes down the from the royal throne and proving its utility. Later on, however, the French would re-appropriate the ‘King’s cords’ moniker in order to shift a few more units of a material which had eventually become known as ‘a poor man’s velvet’, because of a preference by artists, students and street workers.
Recently, discussion about suiting with a Swedish friend of mine switched me on to their fondness of our beloved corduroy. “My father always used to wear Manchester pants with wool dinner jackets, or the other way around; he always looked great.” he explained. But it was too much of a startling statement for me to let it pass without questioning, “what on earth are Manchester pants? And what would it look like the other way round?!” A two second explanation told me what I should have known from the start, that being that ‘Manchester pants’ are what we would refer to as ‘corduroy trousers’. It is then explained to me that many Scandinavians have fond memories of this beautifully subtle and yet elegant material; another example of its cultural importance. The ‘Manchester’ part there is an allusion to the northern English city which gave corduroy its famous stripes.
This brings us along to the true origin story of corduroy as, whilst we’ve demonstrated that over the centuries we have all fallen head over heals in love with it in every corner of the planet, it must have come from somewhere? Well, it did. Just when you thought the history lesson was over we are going to go back to the year 200AD when a simple woven fabric from the now non-existent Egyptian city of Fustat was creatively named fustian. The fabric was thought to be very luxurious because of the softness of the high pile in the weave, and was soon taken on by the western world. By the 18th century in England and some other parts of Europe fustian was a blend of either cotton and wool or cotton and linen which featured a raised weave which was then sheared down so that the natural fibre ends could display their warmth and softness whist being held in place by a cotton base. It’s smooth, raised finish is what drew people to compare it with the exquisitely expensive velvet which was much loved by royals across the globe. The corduroy that we know and love today was transformed gradually from traditional fustian to what we consider to be traditional corduroy just up the road, in Lancashire’s cotton mills. The stripes or ‘wales’ that have become so iconic were achieved by weaving layers of wool or similar fabrics in new techniques, and then cutting, combing, and even glueing in the lines. The end result was intended to be longer lasting and softer than ever before. The ‘wales’ are measured on a numbered scale with a higher wale giving a finer cord which might be used for shirting or more delicate items, and the lower scale housing those beautiful deep and thick elephant cords.
Corduroy has been popular from 200AD to the present day
It’s interesting to consider the journey of corduroy and the people who have loved it and their reasons for doing so. On home soil, here in England, we might think of a school teachers trousers, a farmer’s work clothes, the moustachioed 1970s beat cop’s shearling collared jacket and his love interest's incredibly form fitting jumpsuit, we think of Queens and Kings or even little Dickensian peasant children causing mischief in the London backstreets. In all of those considerations there is wealth and there is poverty, there is education and underprivileged youth, there is movie stardom alongside the day to day grind, and there is the lesson that corduroy is loved by everyone for good reason. It is everything that everyone needs to feel warm, and strong, and safe, and luxurious all at once. Here at Archie Foal, we love corduroy as much as you as do. And that’s why we have reserved a section of our new Autumn/Winter 19 collection for one of our favourite fabrics.
Introducing the new Halden shirt for men in rich tobacco and navy colours. The Halden uses the perfect lightweight needlecord to ensure that comfort and warmth are the key features for this autumn shirt. And last but not least the Mia jumpsuit in low wale tan corduroy. The slim fit of the Mia is inspired by the beautiful heroines of the 1970s silver screen. The thick, lustrous cord body combine with an elegant slim form, whilst the long sleeves, central front zipper, and collar buckle all serve to flatter the female form in all its glory. All available online and in store now.
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